Blogs & Comment

Canada looks good in new city ranking, bad in another

Our cities are livable, but they're also at risk of becoming less relevant on a global stage.


(Photo: John Vetterli/Wikimedia)

Two recent city rankings are out, one of which casts Canada in a positive light—the other, not so much. According to a report released by the Reputation Institute on Thursday, Vancouver has the best reputation of any city in the world. Toronto and Montreal scored pretty well too, at 22nd and 26th respectively.

But another recent ranking, published in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, measured what it called “The Most Dynamic Cities of 2025.” The list is based on population and GDP projections with a heavy emphasis on growth. The ranking contained “75 powerhouses” and only one was Canadian: Toronto, at 52nd.

So which list should Canadians care more about? They are likely at odds.

The Reputation Institute’s list, much like The Economist’s livability ranking (in which Vancouver and Toronto also score very well), is dominated by mid-sized cities. As a blogger for The Economist points out, mid-sized cities score better than megacities because they tend to have less crime and congestion.

At the same time, in a battle for relevance in an increasingly globalized world, size matters, and bigger is better. Which is why 13 of the top 20 “Most Dynamic Cities of 2025” are Chinese.

The booming populations of these various Chinese cities will eventually level out as the country has a negative fertility rate of 1.6 children per family, but rural migration will feed them for a while yet.

Canada cannot grow this way. We also have a negative fertility rate, currently at 1.7, but we are already by and large city-dwelling folk. Thus, city growth cannot be driven from within, as it is in China. Canada has 35 million people and more than 80% of us are already urban. China has 1.35 billion and about 52% are urban (two decades from now, that number is expected to reach 75%).

Cities are the heart and soul of globalization and their importance is only increasing. And while the difference in population between Canada and some of these major countries may come to a relative halt, their cities are set to eclipse ours as they go through the same urbanization process that we have already benefited from.

Currently, Toronto has a higher GDP than Shanghai, $270 billion compared to $250 billion. The Foreign Policy report predicts that by 2025 Shangai’s will reach $1.11 trillion, over four times what it is now. Toronto will command $410 billion.

We should be concerned. The future is increasingly in large, connected cities with sizable talent pools. They are, for example, crucial to the tech industry.

Case in point: Our startups tend to sell early, often to Americans, as they are unable to find senior talent or score enough growth capital. This is largely because we are too small.

Companies like Research In Motion and Nortel have been the exceptions, having created small ecosystems, but both have also fallen from grace, as tech companies often do, reminding us that a single company cannot maintain an ecosystem indefinitely. In Silicon Valley, which is fed by a nation of 312 million, there are enough big-hitters that a few can fall without thwarting the system. Contrastingly, Nortel once comprised a third of the entire TSX.

Toronto is expected to grow to 7 million people by 2025 from roughly 6 million now. That’s all immigration. But while that growth is comparable to the rates of most other cities in developed nations (and better than some), it’s far below the rates at which cities are growing in China, Brazil and India. And already Chinese firms are starting to make a splash internationally, like state-owned telecom company Huawei.

Human population will likely level out around the end of the century and as emerging countries experience increased wealth and livability, the line of talented immigrants looking to get out of dodge will grow shorter.

As immigrants move to large cities almost exclusively, increased immigration is the fastest (and only) way to grow our cities. The rise of emerging-nation cities threatens to push Canadian ones further down the list. We’re swimming upstream, but, unlike the noble British Columbian salmon, not fast enough to move forward, at least not competitively.  

That’s one reason we should perhaps not let rankings that favour mid-sized cities get to our heads.

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